Lit Bits

Estocada on the Rio Odiel: Death of an Alden Schooner

Matador gored after estocada

During much of that long night as our fine Alden schooner, Constellation, lay crippled on her side in the river, I found myself thinking of the bulls.

Tim, the first mate, and I had gone to see them at the Plaza del Toros in Puerto de Santa Maria, across the bay from Cadiz, not long after we first landed in Spain. Neither of us had ever witnessed a bullfight before, so initially we’d had trouble grasping what was happening. It seemed unfair that one bull should have to fight all those men--the picadors, the banderilleros, the haughty matador with his sword and cape--and as one animal after another slumped to the sand lathered in blood, I could not help but feel that their deaths were cruel and meaningless.

Slowly, however, as the afternoon wore on and the hot sun dipped behind the stadium wall, we developed an appreciation for what we were witnessing. We noted some of the finer points of the bullfighters’ performances, and when the last bull came out we were treated to a real battle royale. This bull not only gored one of the banderilleros, but also succeeded in overturning a picador’s horse, and then resisted three separate sword attacks, or estocadas, from the matador. Only on the fourth estocada, as the matador at last found his mark, slipping the blade deep between the animal’s shoulder blades, did the bull fall to the ground. But even then, after receiving a dagger to the head as a coup de grace, the bull jumped suddenly to its feet again and fought on for several minutes before succumbing to a fifth and final sword.

In the end the animal’s carcass was dragged from the ring by a team of mules, and the crowd rose to its feet to deliver a long standing ovation. They were cheering not for the matador, we realized, but for the bravery of the bull. Later that night we stopped for dinner at a restaurant that served only beef from bulls that had died in the ring, and the significance of what we had seen became apparent.

“They would have died anyway,” I exclaimed, pointing at my meal.

“Exactly,” said Tim. “And at least this way they get to go out like bulls, doing what they were born to do.”


Our running the boat aground in the river was, in fact, only the latest in a long series of misfortunes. Indeed, ever since I had first signed on as crew four months earlier in Key West, it seemed we had done nothing but lurch blindly from crisis to crisis. For though there was no denying that Constellation was a beautiful boat, it was also true she was an old one.

A friend of mine back in Key West had warned me about this just prior to our departure. “A wooden boat,” he told me, “especially an old one, is nothing but a collection of leaks loosely organized as a hull.”

But by then I was in love and could not listen to reason.

Alden schooner Constellation under sail

She was a classic John Alden design, loosely based on the Canadian bluenose schooners that had once fished the Grand Banks. Originally christened La Reine, she measured 78 feet on deck, 96 feet overall, if you counted her long bowsprit and boomkin, and had been built in 1932 at the famous Hodgdon Brothers yard in East Boothbay, Maine. During World War II she served in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Corsair fleet, hunting Japanese submarines on the East Coast. After the war she was re-rigged for ocean racing with a Marconi main, and in 1955, and again in 1959, finished first in her class in the Transpac Race. During the mid-1970s she circumnavigated the globe. But by the late 1980s when her present owners, Cliff and Ruth Ann Fremstad, fell under her spell, Constellation was a barely floating hulk tied to a forgotten dock in Fort Lauderdale.

Though they could ill afford such a boat, Cliff and Ruth Ann had worked hard for four long years fixing her up. They ran her as a head boat out of Key West to finance her restoration, and with Tim’s help, in between day-trips hauling snorkelers out to the reef, they had completely rebuilt her deck and refinished her interior. The crowning touch came the previous winter, when they took her to a yard in Tarpon Springs and paid to have her entire hull refastened. Thus, when I joined Constellation that spring she was--supposedly--fit for her first long ocean passage in nearly 20 years.

On our shakedown cruise from Key West to Charleston, South Carolina, we developed some slow leaks on our port side and also blew out the main staysail stay. But these didn’t seem like big problems. We patched the leaks with some underwater epoxy, re-rigged the stay with a new Norseman terminal, then headed south again for Florida, to St. Augustine, for the start of the 1992 TRANSARC rally to Spain.

As we were entering the inlet at St. Augustine under power, rolling in a mean swell, a huge pillar of black smoke suddenly emerged from the midship hatches. Evidently we were on fire. We shut down the engine and fortunately the smoke immediately dissipated. Later we learned we had only fractured the exhaust on the old GM diesel. Cliff grimaced a bit, wriggled his shoulders, and ordered we get some canvas up lest we drift down on to the breakwater. We spent the rest of that afternoon cautiously maneuvering through a drawbridge and into the inner harbor under sail and thankfully found a long, empty dock to tie up to.

We spent two weeks in St. Augustine, madly rushing to prepare for our departure. Cliff rebuilt the engine exhaust, the rest of us attended to various other repairs (including more underwater work on the hull), and in the end we were ready for the start of the rally just in time. On our third night offshore, however, more than halfway to Bermuda, I was awakened from a deep sleep by an ongoing commotion in the main salon. Flashlight beams swizzle-sticked in the darkness, and through cracked-open eyelids I could see the crew on watch was wrestling with a large piece of equipment.

Cliff was shouting at Tim, and Tim was shouting back: “Don’t yell at me! I’m doing everything I can!”

They’ll call you if they need you, I told myself, and somehow drifted back to sleep again. In my mind, like sheep, I counted up the things I’d need to grab if we abandoned ship. Come daylight I found we had, in fact, come tolerably close to sinking during the night. The slow leaks on our port side, which had plagued us since South Carolina, suddenly had become very large leaks, and the water in the bilge had swiftly crept up over the cabin sole before anyone noticed. All through my morning watch I sat on the coachroof and every 15 minutes started up the powerful gasoline-driven crash pump that had been set up on deck. Each time I started the pump, I marveled at the quantity of water that came rushing out of the boat.

Later that same afternoon, as we limped back west, one of the starboard mainmast chainplates split in two.


When we reached Florida three days later much of the crew immediately jumped ship, including Jack, the second mate, who had spent the last year and a half helping to fix up the boat in Key West. I was having second thoughts myself and asked Tim what he thought he was going to do.

Tim frowned, then shrugged. “I guess it’s like a soap opera,” he said. “I’ve got to find out what happens next.”

Somehow this made sense to me.

Cliff had the boat hauled at Rybovich-Spencer in West Palm Beach, which encouraged us, as it is an expensive yard renowned for its high-quality work. As soon as we were out, the yard’s two excellent wood-hull specialists, who were both named Don, discovered that a large section of Constellation’s port side was not fastened to her frame. This prompted Cliff to make some very unkind remarks about that low-budget yard back in Tarpon Springs. For two solid weeks the Dons worked at putting the hull back together again, replacing loose planks and repacking seams. Meanwhile, Tim and I painted the topsides and refinished the caprail, and Cliff replaced chainplates, and when we were done the Dons asked us where we were headed.

When we told them, they laughed and said: “This boat isn’t going to Spain.”

Alden schooner Constellation

But by now, it seemed, we had little choice in the matter. And again we cast off our lines and headed east.

The hull was tight now and the leaks had stopped, but still we had problems. By the time we reached Bermuda, the alternator had failed and had to be replaced. In the Azores the engine seized up and so was stripped down and rebuilt by a mad Portuguese mechanic and his son. And whenever we sailed off the wind, which was much of the time, the boat rolled and worked, groaning like a banshee, such that bulkheads and odd bits of joinery often sprang loose and had to be refastened. Meanwhile, though we never experienced any severe weather, our sails--the very same sails that had driven the boat to victory in the Transpac over 30 years earlier--blew out with clockwork regularity. And as fast as we stitched them up and reset them, they would simply blow out again.

Onboard Alden schooner Constellation

Onboard Alden schooner Constellation

Finally, though, we did make it to Spain, and as soon as we had tied up in Cadiz and cleared customs, Cliff broke out an enormous magnum of champagne. He poured us each a glass and announced with a gleam in his eye: “I’m gonna send a postcard to those Dons.”

We spent just two weeks in Puerto de Santa Maria, across the bay from Cadiz, then sailed 60 miles north up the coast to the town of Huelva. Huelva is situated on a fast tidal river, the Rio Odiel, and is near Palos, from whence Columbus set forth to discover the New World. Here we planned to join a quincentennial rally that was soon to embark on a recreation of Columbus’ historic voyage from Spain to the Bahamas. Unfortunately, however, not long after we anchored at Huelva, our generator melted down and to be taken ashore for repairs, so we missed the start.


We finally left Huelva on our own several days later and started downriver on a clear Wednesday evening about an hour after sunset. We ran aground less than half an hour later near a junction in the river where an enormous white statue of Columbus stood facing west, gleaming like a tombstone in the darkness.

It was a stupid mistake, but an honest one. The river channel was well marked with flashing buoys, but we had failed to notice some buoys that were lost in the blazing lights of an oil refinery downstream. First Cliff gunned the boat hard to port back toward the middle of the river, then hard astern, then hard to port again. All to no avail. The slack flood had turned less than an hour before, and now the strong ebb tide was quickly gathering force. Though it took us only a few minutes to launch our dinghy, already from the extra distance I felt in that familiar leap from caprail to tender it seemed we had lost nearly a full foot of water from beneath the hull.

We quickly set an anchor well off the port bow and tried to pull the boat off on her windlass. When this failed, we tried to heel her off on a line to her masthead. Again, no luck. Dave, who had signed on as crew in Bermuda, joined me in the dinghy, and Cliff ordered us back upriver to Huelva to find a boat to pull us out. Together we sped off into the darkness and in only a moment were caught like thieves in the spotlight of a Guardia Civil patrol. The patrol boat was clearly too small to pull out a boat as big as Constellation, but we waved them on to the scene of the grounding nonetheless, then raced away up the river.

When Dave and I returned an hour later with a small tugboat, we found Constellation leaning to port at a severe 40-degree angle with her crew huddled like refugees on the high side of the deck. To tow her out now in so little water was obviously out of the question, so we released the tug on a promise that it would return in the morning when the tide came in again. Dave and I then rejoined the boat. The Guardia Civil, we learned, had offered no prospect of assistance beyond their repeated advice of the obvious--that we had strayed from the channel and run aground.

Now we could do nothing but wait. I wrapped myself in a blanket on deck, wedged myself against the side of the cabin, and hoped this was an interval, not an ending. I thought of the bulls and of how the last one had leapt back to its feet, seemingly resurrected from the dead. If only I could sleep, I thought. Then as surely as the sun would rise Constellation would likewise jump to her feet again, and on waking I would find myself on a level deck, aboard a floating boat.

But I could not sleep. The last of the tide had slipped away, leaving Constellation full on her side, and her old wood hull now made very loud cracking noises at irregular intervals. They sounded like gunshots muffled in the still darkness of the night.

“Must be the masts settling against their wedges,” said Cliff quietly.

But the rest of us knew he was deluding himself. Eventually the tide did turn, rising again, but the port rail did not rise with it, the angle of the deck did not decline, and slowly the boat’s interior filled with water. We got out the crash pump, our trusted ally, and started it up. But after the pump had run some 30 minutes without perceptibly slowing the flow of water into the boat, it became clear that Constellation was finished.

Tim tended the pump all through the small hours of the morning while I evacuated gear and personnel in the dinghy to a boat club dock on the far side of the river. Dave, working on shore, searched frantically for more pumps and stopped by the dock occasionally to give me progress reports. The coast guard had nothing. The local fire department--well, yes, they had one, but it had been sent to Barcelona for the Olympics. And as I relayed all this to Cliff aboard the boat, he grew increasingly sullen and silent. Here was four years of his life, four years of relentless work, four years of dreams, all lost in the mud.

At daybreak as the first weak-willed streaks of light stretched out across the river, the crash pump finally ran out of gas. The river, still rising, had crept up more than two feet above the port rail, and the interior of the old schooner was already half full of water. Stray pieces of flotsam--books and loose paper, clothing, settee cushions, a pair of plastic parallel rules--drifted aimlessly around the main salon.

Tim and I sat patiently in the dinghy watching Cliff as he silently roamed the dry side of the deck, replacing a winch handle, the boathook, and several loose pieces of line to their proper places. Then, without a word, he joined us in the dinghy, and we pushed off and slowly motored across the river. When we reached the dock Cliff at once trudged wearily up the ramp towards shore, but Tim and I stood for a moment gazing at the hulk we had left behind.

“Cliff and I worked real hard on that boat,” said Tim, frowning.

“Well, at least she went out like a boat,” I replied.

And then Tim, too, remembered the bulls, and smiled.

UPDATE: Here's a link to a great account by Steve Dashew describing his adventures as a boy aboard Constellation.



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